This week, I’ve been reading Groundswell by Charlene Li and Josh Bernoff. “The groundswell is a social trend in which people use technologies to get the things they need from each other, rather than traditional institutions like corporations” (p 9). The book focuses on the business implications of this trend, but I read between the lines to gain insight into the learning implications of the groundswell.
Li and Bernoff’s point is that you can’t control the groundswell – as in jujitsu martial arts, you can only hope to turn its power in your favor. People do six things in the groundswell:
> Create (blogs, user-generated content, podcasts)
> Connect (social networks and virtual worlds)
> Collaborate (wikis and open source)
> React to each other (forums, ratings, reviews)
> Organize content (tags)
> Accelerate consumption (rss and widgets)
The authors show that it doesn’t matter what technology customers are using to enable these activities; what matters is understanding how customers are already participating in the groundswell. Are they creators, critics, collectors, joiners, spectators, or inactive? With a profile of target customer participation, a business can figure out how to enter the groundswell to meet their customers there, by: listening (getting to know what they’re saying about you), talking (spreading your own messages), energizing (get them excited about your products), supporting (helping customers to support each other), and embracing (integrating customers into the way your company does business). (This is a selective and necessarily brief summary; I heartily recommend reading the book!)
Of course, learners are in the groundswell, too. Rather than waiting for us to serve up learning, they are reaching out to each other, both inside and outside the company, to get what they need. Here’s some of what they are doing in the groundswell:
> Creating – they’re posting their insights, job aids, and tools for others to share
> Connecting – they’re pinging each other to get information and advice and to find experts, resources, and collaborators
> Collaborating – they’re finding partners to learn from and with while they work; they co-create knowledge on line
> Reacting – they’re providing commentary to each other and writing reviews about what is helpful and what isn’t
> Organizing – they’re keeping track of what is helpful through tagging and bookmarking, and letting others in on what they find
> Accelerating – they’re selecting and managing information through rss readers and personal learning environments
Even if we never officially post a blog, initiate a collaborative procedure manual, or open Facebook-like profile site – at least some of our learners are using these tools to advance their own learning. We’re missing a huge opportunity to fully support our learners if we don’t engage with new technologies and enable learners to get what they need from each other.
My approach to thinking about learning 2.0 has been to consider the potential learning benefit of a particular technology, and to recommend one that is best suited for a particular desired result. So if we need to keep learners up to date on rapidly changing content, a blog may be a good choice. If we want to provide robust resources, a wiki technology may help experts collaborate effectively on a user-friendly database. Groundswell recommends a backwards approach. Find out what the learners are already doing, and join in!
So our first step needs to be understanding the “social technographics profile” of our particular learners. That is, how do they like to engage on line? Do they create content (creators)? If so, they might appreciate being able to contribute to an online knowledge database. Are they comfortable reacting to other’s content (critics)? If so, perhaps we can enable discussion boards or rating systems. Do they bookmark (collectors) or sign up in social networking sites (joiners)? Collectors might appreciate some guidance on the best sources of information, and joiners might want some sort of online profile. Do they at least lurk on line (spectators), or are they nonparticipants (inactives)? If they’re not in the groundswell already, we have quite a job to get them there if we want to use web 2.0 tools for learning. While it is interesting to note how online US adults engage in general, it is more helpful to know the tendencies of our specific learner target groups (degree of engagement varies by age, by country of origin, and by many other factors). Just like knowing customers’ profiles can help a business decide the best strategy for engaging them online, knowing our learners’ profiles can help us to make smarter decisions about which learning 2.0 tools will be most appreciated.
One of the things I learned about communities of practice when I did some in-depth research a few years ago (fond memories of preparing a dissertation) was that it’s hard to “make” them happen – you can create an environment that helps or hinders, but often the more you try to help, the more you actually hurt the formation of a community. It’s organic and spontaneous and often has a life cycle of usefullness. So while we understand them, communities are hard to “design” and “implement.” Groundswell is the online version of this phenomenon in some ways. Just like with communities, we need to give people the tools and let go. Aack! As we start to use the web 2.0 tools in organizational learning, we’re leery of giving up control. Groundswell, and other books and articles on the same topic, clearly remind us that we’ve already lost control. The best we can do – and this can be doing quite a lot – is to join the groundswell and help guide learners in a productive direction.
That said, I’m also something of a realist. Within organizations, we have to make choices about technology products; we have to be concerned about security and regulatory compliance; we worry about server space; we balance productivity with investments in learning; and we juggle other decisions that impact what we are willing and able to do in this learning 2.0 space. I like the idea of profiling the target learners rather than making assumptions about what tools they might find useful. “Build it and they will come” is a little risky. “Find out what they’re already building and lend a hand” seems a more useful strategy. I’ll work on the control thing.
Source: Charlene Li and Josh Bernoff (2008). Groundswell: Winning in a world transformed by social technologies. Harvard Business School Press: Boston, MA.